Case Overview, Appropriations for Funding of National Nuclear Waste Disposal Site

This document provides background information and summarizes the debate over congressional appropriations of funding for a national nuclear waste disposal site at Yucca Mountain. The links to the left will lead you to public documents that we have found.

           Consumers whose electricity is provided at least in part from nuclear power plants pay a fee as part of their monthly electric bill. This tax is a dedicated income stream to support waste disposal. Nuclear fuel rods, the raw source of the power produced at nuclear facilities, remain radioactive for millions of years. In 1982 the federal government made a commitment to build a facility where these rods could be stored safely underground. The site chosen, Yucca Mountain, Nevada, was still being studied at the time of the initial interviews on this case (summer of 2000). Various tests were being conducted to ensure that the facility would have the strength and integrity to withstand external shocks or internal degradation that could compromise safety.

           The user fees collected by the many nuclear utilities around the country are passed on to the government. Each year the Congress, in consultation with the Department of Energy, must appropriate some of this money to keep preparation of the Yucca Mountain site moving forward. The amount Congress appropriates is discretionary; there is no fixed sum that must spent in each yearly budget cycle. Over the years somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 billion had been collected from the tax, but significantly less than that had been appropriated by Congress. Thus, each year, lobbyists representing the nuclear industry would push and prod legislators on the key committees to appropriate sufficient funds for Yucca Mountain. One lobbyist described her strategy of convincing legislators to support the waste disposal project:

"Some of them don't have nuclear power anywhere near where they live or their district. And then you really have to resort back to the governmental obligation that Congress made a commitment back, whenever, when this program was developed, and consumers have paid and that obligation is there and that's something that I think many people fundamentally appreciate. The government made an obligation, money's been paid into it. It is necessary for a solution to be found and for government to meet that obligation. It doesn't sort of fit up there with the obligation to the veterans or anything but it's still a sort of basic understanding that if the government made a commitment then they should keep it."

           The opposition to the appropriation was really opposition to the entire project and not to the specific yearly spending target. Nevada legislators and environmentalists wanted the whole Yucca Mountain project scrapped. Most members of Congress, however, felt that as long as the country continued to produce nuclear waste, it was necessary for the government to provide a safe means of disposing of it. Moreover, members of Congress outside of Nevada were thankful that the facility wasn't going to be built in their state and didn't want to risk a re-opening of the site selection. Consequently here was very little doubt that an appropriation to continue the work at Yucca Mountain would be made, although the House and the Senate differed considerably in their judgment as to how much was warranted. The initial House appropriation set aside $213 million for the program while the Senate budgeted just $59 million. The final number that emerged from the conference committee was closer to the House's preference at $191 million.